How & Why to Boost Parent Engagement

Published on Tuesday, 04 February 2020
Last updated on Monday, 03 February 2020

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It’s a new year and forging a successful partnership with parents and carers requires engaging them early, often, and creatively to build a lasting and meaningful relationship with multiple benefits. 

Research shows that strong partnerships between an early childhood centre and families can significantly reduce the effects of social disadvantage, contribute positively to improved child outcomes and increase social inclusion.

The challenge however is that a one-size-fits-all approach may not work. Engagement requires multiple strategies as every family is different and not all parents can commit to all levels of partnership development. 

Sometimes parents aren’t responsive, and for various reasons, can’t be involved or don’t have the resources to engage on multiple levels with educators. But it is important to persist and to work together to develop goals and establish a way forward that is meaningful and valuable for both parties.   

Fortunately, there are numerous evidence-based practices that can be woven into daily routines and flexible approaches to help establish and maintain a collaborative parent relationship. 

Importance of parent engagement

Parent engagement is a step beyond parental involvement. It is an active collaboration where parents and early childhood educators work together in an intentional, meaningful and reciprocal manner to support positive learning experiences. 

Experts and regulators see parent engagement in early childhood education as one of the most powerful drivers of better educational outcomes. 

The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) states, “Educators’ practices and the relationships they form with children and families have a significant effect on children’s involvement and success in learning.  Children thrive when families and educators work together in partnership to support young children’s learning.”

Working together to make the parent an active participant in their child’s education can support and extend activities in the classroom as parents gain a better understanding of how to help their child at home. As well as providing scaffolding for a child’s efforts, it creates additional opportunities for social interaction and connection with the community and the world around them.

An effective partnership with families requires awareness of what parents want for their children as well as their expectations of an early learning service. The EYLF says that strong partnerships with families are based on:

  • trust
  • open and respectful communication
  • shared information about their child
  • shared understanding of perspectives and expectations
  • involvement in children’s learning and development
  • shared decision making

How to promote engagement

Practices to implement a program of engagement range from very simple and easy to execute ideas through to more complex activities. To know the child you need to understand them in the context of their family, culture and community. 

Parents and carers are experts on their children. They know what a child is good at, what excites them and any factors that may effect their behaviour and learning. Their insights and feedback are essential to assist in understanding and caring for the child and their family. 

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in America found successful engagement practices encompass the following six principles:

  • Parents are invited to participate in decision making and goal setting for their child
  • Engage in two-way communication that is timely and continuous
  • Educators and parents are engaged in ways that are truly reciprocal – programs invite families to share their unique knowledge and skills and encourage active participation in the life of the school. Educators seek information about children’s lives, families, and communities and integrate this information into their curriculum and teaching practices
  • Provide learning activities for the home to enhance early learning and support families to create a learning environment beyond the classroom
  • Programs invite parents to participate in program-level decisions and wider advocacy efforts in the wider community
  • Programs implement a comprehensive program-level system of parent engagement to establish policies and practices, ensuring that all staff receive the supports they need to fully engage parents

Some support activities to engage parents

Make the most of drop-off and pick-up activities:

Even though it can be hectic, this is a great time to establish personal connections. Greetings are important, using first names and taking some time, whenever possible, to share a detail or a positive observation about their child is an opportunity to foster a parent’s involvement.

Invite parents into the classroom:

Regularly invite parents to spend time in the classroom. Give families information about the different ways they can participate. When parents complete a questionnaire about their child’s interests ask if they’d like to volunteer to help with crafts, be a story reader, teach a song or if they have a special talent to share such as their job or an ability to play an instrument. 

Use this as an opportunity to ask for parent’s input on activities and special interests they’d like incorporated into the classroom or for their child. 

Communicate frequently:

Create pathways for two-way communication. Let parents know the best way to communicate with you (emails, phone calls, or face to face) and promote an open-door policy. Ask parents their preferred method of communication and send positive, regular communications early and throughout the year. 

Provide useful information in your newsletter including words of songs and rhymes, important dates, information updates (policies and procedures), articles or interviews with parents and fun ideas for low cost home activities.

Maintain frequent contact with parents and question them on the relevancy of communication or possible improvements that could be undertaken. Check in with parents to let them know you are there for them. 

Identify and make useful resources available to parents:

Give parents a role in education at home by providing resources or information about how they can support activities undertaken during the day. Be prepared to assist a parent with guidance on issues such as behaviour, language development or nutrition, and lead them to relevant resources via online sites, a lending library or through support services.

Recommend activities to try at home to build on learning activities from the day. Make resources available online or by request.  

Be creative: 

Try to plan activities like a family fun day, movie night, a shared recipe book or a games night. Elicit ideas from parents and encourage them to be involved in developing and planning. You could even hold informal ‘drop in’ coffee times and encourage parents to come for an ‘ideas day’. 

Celebrate creativity achievements: 

Create portfolios, share works via apps and use gallery walls to showcase children’s experiences and creations to parents as they enter the classroom or building. 

Tackle language barriers:

An understanding of a child’s background and their cultural practice at home will further support relationships and collaboration. Valuing and strengthening a child’s cultural identity will have many benefits including improving partnerships.

Parents who don’t speak English as their first language can find it hard to interact with educators. If possible invite the child or another parent or colleague to interpret to promote inclusiveness. Ask for a list of words or phrases in the child’s first language to share and place within the classroom. 

Thanks to Australasian Journal of Early Childhood (March 2018, issue 43) and RTI Action Network for their insights on parent engagement, which helped, write this article.

Further reading: 

He Kupu
The Maryland Family Engagement Coalition  

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